Nahlah Ayed: Leadership deficit in the Arab World

Egypt's ongoing strife is a textbook example of what happens in a region that has known little but dictators, Nahlah Ayed writes. More vision and political skill are needed, but how to find that in places that have never allowed any real opposition to flourish?

Egypt's troubles are a textbook case

Cairo police take up positions at a pro-Morsi rally in December. A familiar sight. (Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi / Reuters)

Two years ago, the search began here in Egypt for a new generation of leaders after 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak stepped down and left a vacancy that few had ever thought would materialize.

Being president of this country had long meant being a military strongman — occasionally well dressed, sometimes charismatic (though not necessarily) — but always, always, chosen without consulting the people.

This time, after autocracy was ostensibly replaced by democracy, the people were going to have a say.

But when the election came, they didn't have much to choose from.

In a sad twist of fate, the young people who started the revolution in search of renewal seemed condemned to be led by remote, drab old men in ill-fitting suits, most of whom couldn't give an inspiring speech if their lives depended on it.

Now, as the country takes stock of its stagnation and divisions, two years after so much hope, much of the blame can be placed on a leadership deficit whose ill effects Egypt still suffers from.

Eluding Egypt at the moment — and most other Arab nations in transition — is the kind of powerful political personality, whether in government or opposition, who could hold wide appeal across generations, and among Islamists and liberals alike.

"In Egypt and in many other countries of the Arab Spring, this leadership was not there in the revolution," observes Nora Bakr, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

"We had different factions asking for the same things, but there was no one leader to rally behind."

Of course, why would there be? In most of these Arab nations, leaders had been chosen for the people, long ago, and rivals either didn't exist, or were swiftly neutralized one way or another.

Any recognized opposition parties were either co-opted, or fundamentally weak with no experience in ruling, or banned altogether, like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whatever political jobs were actually available outside hereditary means have long been held by the elite, and it often didn't matter whether those who got them were actually qualified or not (often not).

An absence of choice

In Egypt's case, there was a post-revolution lineup of leadership hopefuls — each with his (and yes, almost exclusively it was a he) cadre of supporters.

But none managed to rise above the newly fractured political scene to capture a broad swath of the population, let alone the nation's imagination.

The eventual candidates for president were largely a collection of political has-beens, could-have-beens, or never-should-be's.

As a result, on the second ballot last summer, voters were left to choose between a backroom member of the Muslim Brotherhood — Mohammed Morsi, the eventual winner, who wasn't even his own party's first choice — and a relic of the old regime, Ahmed Shafik, the former prime minister.

Many secular revolutionaries, at least those who didn't boycott the vote, nervously opted for Morsi than accept a Mubarak holdover, hoping the Brotherhood candidate might yet speak for the whole of Egypt.

"With some little things, he could have gained us to his side," says Rana Allam, an active supporter of the revolution, now managing editor of the English language newspaper Daily News Egypt.

Things like "you know, social justice? Dignity? Bread? I mean we would have taken anything. It's a lost cause now."

Popularity eroding

Many Egyptians agree these bread and butter issues should be the priorities right now for the country's president. But many had also hoped for a transparent and inclusive leader who could help erase divisions.

In an ideal Egypt, what was wanted was a leader who could articulate a clear vision and a useful national project (like curbing poverty, or unemployment) that could unite and motivate more than just core supporters.

"You need charisma for people to rally behind you, you need charisma for people to believe," says Bakr. "This is what it is lacking and has been lacking among the opposition as well as in the presidential institution."

Once a prisoner under Mubarak, Morsi knew much about being in opposition — which appealed to many and gave him credibility — but he was certainly never groomed to be the country's president.

Despite some early rousing speeches, he still seems ill at ease in public, and hesitant. Critics (both in opposition and within the Brotherhood) say he's also failed so far to be the "big-tent" leader of all Egyptians.

He enjoys support from a solid constituency who are loyal to the Brotherhood no matter who the leader is.

But, a forced constitution and many crises and clashes later, it is clear that Morsi's marginal popularity is eroding. A recent national poll conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research says that only 39 per cent would vote for him now compared to 50 per cent in December.

The same poll indicates that young people, who are the majority in this country, are less satisfied by his performance than older people. The more educated those young people, the more dissatisfied they are.

And if Twitter comments and call-in shows are any indication, there's real disappointment in the leaders of the other main national parties as well.

It is all especially disheartening to the young revolutionaries who have long been shut out of the political realm, and have been taking their disappointment to the streets these last weeks.

"Their expectations are very high," says Bakr. "It will speed the process to reach the shore safely by having a charismatic leadership, a leadership that would understand them, and would be willing to listen to them and follow their speed."

It's only been two years, but then again, for most of their lives, many of the young people across this region have only ever known one leader. They've waited a long time for change — and were hoping it would be for the better.